The United States was chosen as the Thessaloniki International Fair’s country of honor this year and, demonstrating its appreciation of that distinction, the US honored the fair with a truly spectacular pavilion. More than 50 American firms and educational entities set up their booths in what resembled a labyrinth of countless, impressive exhibits. At the end of the sprawling hall lay the most interesting exhibit of them all – a great reward for the patient visitor.
Lockheed Martin, the leading US-based aerospace and defense technology company, had shipped over a state-of-the-art flight simulator that enabled a few lucky TIF visitors to have a go at “flying” its most impressive creation: the fifth-generation F-35. The booth’s representatives greeted Kathimerini with warm smiles and, after a few minutes’ wait, led us inside the simulator for a chance to pilot the world’s most extraordinary fighter jet.
Craig Dalle, a Lockheed Martin representative and former member of the US Air Force who has been flying for over 25 years, welcomed me inside the simulation hall with a firm handshake and a brief explanation of the F-35’s impressive capabilities. “With advanced sensor and stealth technologies and increased situational awareness, the F-35 allows today’s pilots to be more precise than ever before,” he explained. Behind us lay the aircraft’s cockpit, surrounded by three large panels that offered an extraordinarily realistic simulation of a desert dune landscape.
A similar model is employed by the US Air Force to train aspiring pilots in three years of intense preparation before they are actually allowed to fly an F-35. “Of course this is a simplified version of the fighter jet, as some information is highly confidential,” explained Dalle in a slightly apologetic tone – despite the fact that the technical details of the cockpit and the control screen were seriously impressive.
I had been hoping to try on the F-35’s futuristic helmet, a truly remarkable gadget which incorporates microphones for voice commands, a night vision system, and a real-time display of flight information with panoramic vision, but alas it wasn’t to be. “You see, it costs roughly $400,000, so we had to skip it,” said Dalle with a smile, and without further ado he opened the jet’s door and gestured for me to take the pilot’s seat.
With both hands firmly grasping the sticks and throttles and under my guide’s clear instructions, I gently pushed forward. Within seconds, we were already soaring into the skies, just a few meters over the desert terrain. Even without the gravitational forces in play, the jet’s speed was breathtaking and the responsiveness of the controls truly awe-inspiring. Dalle realized that I was speechless and cleverly picked his moment to let me know that, at maximum speed, an F-35 can surpass the speed of sound.
Just as I was beginning to get accustomed to the thrill of the cockpit experience, the Lockheed Martin representative revealed my true mission. “Look, you can see the bad guys on the horizon,” he exclaimed, and indeed the F-35 radar revealed two flickering dots representing two hostile aircraft. Thankfully, they were still too far to be able to detect us – a true testament to the fighter jet’s stealth. “Our goal is to keep our distance and not engage in an active air fight, so we have to execute the interception before they see us,” said Dalle, prompting me to calmly lock onto the target.
Once I had got the fighter jet in the right position and received the command, I flicked the control and launched a rocket. A few seconds of silence followed as we watched the beam of the missile zipping through the clouds. “You can feel your heart beating incessantly, right?” asked Dalle. He was right – the simulation had truly peaked, achieving surprising levels of realism. Eventually, the enemy target was intercepted, and the hostile aircraft dropped, leaving behind a helix of smoke.
“Now you can go on and make a victory lap,” grinned the Lockheed Martin representative. It was then that I realized that a mere 10 minutes had passed and the thrilling simulation was coming to an end. But that was precisely what demonstrated the true power of the F-35: The pilot’s mission can be accomplished in just a matter of minutes.